Why is the central government not listening?


The pandemic has given local authorities the opportunity to show how effective they can be and how important it is to be able to respond to local circumstances. We are good at times of crisis and we are not bad at managing budgets. So why has relations with the central government deteriorated?

? In a virtual debate organized by The GM and involving “a cross section of business leaders, one said if the central government is not listening, then we have to ask ourselves why. It was recognized that while our difficult relationship may be in part due to the culture of Whitehall, we have nonetheless had to ask ourselves some tough questions.

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Maybe we should start with the culture of local government. As I write this I am watching a video on YouTube of a Zoom meeting at Handforth Parish Council. The video is trending because of the bad behavior of some elected officials. There are several aggressive exchanges in which the chair of the committee and her vice-chair are both rude and intimidating towards the mediator. This is not an isolated incident. I was present at such a meeting in another authority where a police officer was present at the request of the council due to the behavior of a councilor and a section of the public forum at the previous meeting.

This problem is not reserved for parish councils. Concerns about the behavior of councilors across local government have been raised nationally due to increasing reports of intimidation and harassment of officers and other councilors. As the head of a large county council, I have regularly witnessed rude and intimidating behavior on the Summary and Member Review Committee. He was an exception but nevertheless he was never sanctioned to my knowledge.

This may affect a very small minority of members, but since outsourcing services have become an accepted way to cut costs, there has been concern about how large contracts were awarded. I was a senior executive in a large authority where the leader and CEO remain on police bail as investigations continue into allegations of corruption and witness intimidation. These are still isolated incidents, but Transparency International, in a recent report, expressed concern that the conditions under which corruption could thrive were now present in local government and that the old system of checks and balances had been. “Eroded or deliberately removed”. These conditions included “? . low levels of transparency, poor external oversight, cronyism networks, reluctance or lack of resources to investigate, outsourcing of public services, large sums of money at stake and perhaps a denial that corruption is a problem at all ‘.

Bad behavior, bullying, harassment and sexism isn’t limited to local government. There have been some high profile cases in the Scottish and UK Parliament. Labor and Conservative governments have been accused of cronyism in the past. The culture of local government has raised concerns, but this is not an adequate explanation for the deterioration of relations between local government and central government.

This relationship has always been one of mistrust. The central government pulls the levers and expects something to happen. Frustration over procrastination or inaction by successive governments has led to tactics such as “strapping” money to restrict and direct the way local government spends it. Housing and education were removed from the control of local authorities in order to accelerate the changes desired by the central government. Often the board is a different color from that of the governing party, creating tension. In recent years, even councils controlled by the same party as the government cannot be used as a basis for criticizing government policies and the allocation of funds. The two are playing the ‘don’t blame us’ game.

As governments have become more ideological, they have become more determined to ensure that their agenda is implemented at the local level, which means bypassing local government or controlling it more closely. Tony Blair of Labor claimed the public didn’t care who ran the services as long as they were profitable – which was a code to create more and more opportunities for others to run the services instead of the local government. Successive Conservative governments have started to encourage the outsourcing of board-run services, believing this will reduce costs and improve efficiency. And of course, for more than ten years, we have had a policy of fiscal austerity in which the budgets of the public sector have been considerably and painfully reduced, not more than that of the local communities.

If local authorities complain too loudly and too publicly about the way they are treated, they risk being seen as “hostile witnesses” and resisting partners. If they instead defend their cause behind closed doors, hope to be judged on its merits and refrain from criticizing in public, they are rendering their most powerful weapon, public opinion.

Given recent history, it would be surprising if relations between central government and local authorities did not deteriorate. The pandemic has given local authorities the opportunity to shine and demonstrate to the government that we can work effectively together. The challenge, after the pandemic, is to find other common agendas and to increase the confidence of central governments in local government.

Blair Mcpherson is a former director, author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk


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